When the children were small and woke with fear in the night, they came into our room and stood breathing quietly by the side of the bed, waiting. They never waited on Dan’s side, but always on mine. After sensing them there — it usually took only a few seconds — I would open my eyes to a small, stationary blur. Seeing I was awake they would begin to speak in hushed and solemn voices, appropriate to the dark: “My ears hurt.” “There’s something under my bed.” “I think I’m going to throw up.” Or most commonly, “I had a bad dream.” Never allowed into our bed for comfort, they were, instead, led by one of us back to their own rooms, where we administered aspirin, cough medicine, or assurance that no, it wasn’t possible for anyone to be sitting outside the third-story window in the Norway maple, or yes, they were right, the water stain on the ceiling did resemble a giraffe with a derby.
They were gone now, all but Florry who was sixteen. Kathryn was living in New Jersey, where her husband Roger worked for Bell Labs. Matthew was a senior at Duke, while James lived with a family named MacNeil in Edinburgh, where he ate large quantities of cheap Indian food and took classes in philosophy.
Tonight a blurry Florry was standing in the dark by the bed. Without turning on the light, I reached for my glasses. She was holding a washcloth to her nose.
“I have a nosebleed,” she whispered, “a bad one. It got all over my sheets; what should I do?”
Before I could answer I felt the mattress shift under me as Dan moved.
“What’s the matter?” he asked, his back to Florry.
“I have a bloody nose,” Florry whispered again.
“Ice,” Dan offered. Dan was tired; he’d been in court all day arguing a case of wrongful death.
“It’ll be all right, I’ll change the sheet,” I said. I slid my legs out from under the comforter, then pushed it back to keep the heat inside for Dan. My feet touched the sheepskin rug and felt for my slippers, but didn’t find them. Barefoot, I stood and followed Florry out of the bedroom. We walked single file down the hallway, twin shadows in ankle-length gowns. Cold air traveled up from the floor, and I hugged my arms across my waist. Ahead of me Florry walked with her head bent forward. Hair fell on either side of her neck, leaving the downy vertebrae exposed. Her shoulder wings poked out; she appeared frail and younger than she was.
In Florry’s room the lamp was on low, diffusing light around the blue walls. Together we looked down at her bed. The comforter was thrown back to reveal blood, like poppies, splotched over the pillowcases and sheet. Afraid to show my alarm, I adjusted my expression to one of calm detachment.
“Maybe you’d better get some ice,” I said.
Florry nodded, her large eyes anxious. “Do you think it will come out?” The sheets were new, tiny blue fleurs-de-lis on white.
“Of course,” I said, hooking a section of blonde hair behind her ear. “Now, go downstairs and get some ice.”
Florry was afraid of the dark. I could hear her flipping lights as she went: first the bathroom, then back along the hall, then down the backstairs to the kitchen.
Turning to her bed, I picked up Florry’s two favorite bears — Felix and Growler. Big and new, Felix had been a recent Christmas present from Matthew. Growler, his light-brown plush worn off in places, she’d had since infancy. Putting them on the window seat, I pulled off the sheets: red, white, and blue. The mattress pad was bloody. I took it off, relieved to find that the mattress itself had not been stained. In the bathroom I left the bloody sheets to soak in cold water. From the linen closet I chose a set of red flannel pillowcases and a printed sheet. With these, and a fresh mattress pad, I returned to Florry’s room.
Originally, the room had been Kathryn’s. Then it was inherited by James. Most recently the walls had been painted blue and Dan had built a window seat for Florry. She’d wanted the two sets of louvered closet doors removed — James had often told her that ghosts entered through the louvers — but Dan had refused. We had installed a white telephone so Florry could lie in bed and talk. Whenever Dan was out of town I’d found it comforting to fall asleep listening to Florry’s voice drone softly into the night.
Having remade the bed, I shook the comforter, plumping up the feathers, and put it back on the bed along with the bears, one on either side of the red pillows. Florry was next door in the bathroom, and over the sound of running water I could hear her gagging and spitting into the sink. She turned when I looked in, her hand still holding the bloodstained washcloth.
“It’s running down my throat; I can taste it,” she said. She wrinkled her pale face.
I took a clean, damp washcloth and placed two ice cubes inside.
“Here,” I said, patting her shoulder, “take this and go lie down.”
She pressed the ice-filled cloth against her nose and climbed into bed. She lay flat on her back, with the pillows and the bears pushed off to one side.
“Is it slowing down now?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied, “but don’t go yet.”
I sat down on the edge of the bed, the balls of my feet cold on the flowered rug. I tucked the comforter up underneath her arms.
“Are you warm enough?”
“Mmm,” she murmured. Then, in a slow and sleepy voice, her eyes still closed, she recited a childhood prayer that I hadn’t heard in years.
“Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, bless the bed that I lie on. Four corners to my bed, four angels round my head, one to watch, one to pray, and two to bear my soul away.”
I looked down at Florry. I thought about the prayer and Florry’s nosebleed, and I remembered Eric Ashton. When I was growing up in Salt Lake, Eric Ashton had been, as Florry was now, an exceptional child. He’d led a charmed life, and everyone could see a bright and promising future ahead for him. Graduating in three years from our university, he’d gone on to Stanford Law. In the summer, he was going to return and marry my best friend Pamela. She had an engagement ring and had ordered her wedding dress. But by summer Eric Ashton had died of leukemia.
It had started with nosebleeds that wouldn’t stop. In Palo Alto they’d removed his spleen and sent him home. Eric lay in Saint Mark’s Hospital. It was winter, it was snowing, cotton was packed into his nose and his arms were filled with tubes. As his friends we gave all the blood we could, reclining on vinyl, our arms immobile. Trying not to move, we talked about everything except why we were there, and afterward drank orange juice from tiny cups and ate cookies. I remember lying there, nauseated, watching the plastic pouch fill with blood. I willed myself not to throw up; I was being brave for Pamela, who was being brave for Eric.
My strongest memory of Eric was of a night four years before he got sick — the night of Kristen Zetterstrom’s birthday party. Kristen’s father was an amateur-radio buff. Near the fence at the back of their yard, a forty-foot radio tower rose into the tall old trees. That night someone dared Eric Ashton to climb it. I can see him now, hanging on to that tower like a sailor to a ship’s mast. One of his feet rested on a rung, while the corresponding hand wrapped itself around another, slightly higher. His free leg was flung out against the stars, and he smiled, gaily waving a bottle of beer down at us. From below, I could see the light reflecting off his blonde hair.
“Avast! Avast!” he shouted into the dark trees around him.
Down below, Kristen Zetterstrom walked back and forth, craning her neck to look up into the trees.
“Avast! Avast!” he called out again, his ordinarily quiet self abandoned.
Kristen circled the bottom of the tower, as if deciding whether she should climb after him.
“Come down!” she called to the spinning sky, probably more concerned about her father’s radio tower than Eric. “You might fall!”
Either Eric hadn’t heard or he chose to ignore her. He paused, then shouted into the thick and holy darkness, “Ship ahoy! Hast thou seen the white whale?” We stared up at him, speechless. And then it was over. We laughed nervously, and slowly, rung by rung, Eric Ashton descended the radio tower.
But Florry’s room was warm and safe. Here were two posters — the Eiffel Tower at sunset, and Monet’s Water Lilies, Giverny. In Paris the sun never set, and the waterlilies in Giverny floated eternally at peace. Florry’s eyelashes fluttered against her cheeks. I put out my finger to touch the chicken-pox scar on her forehead, then leaning down, I kissed it. “Good night,” I said. “I’m going back to bed.”
“G’night,” she mumbled, and reaching out she pulled Growler in close to her small breasts.
I took the stained washcloth from her hand and set it on a plastic tray next to her bed, then I turned off the lamp. But the bathroom light was still on. The sink was streaked and the splash board behind it flecked pinkish. I wiped everything off, then rinsed the sponge, sending the diluted blood swirling down the drain. Flipping the bathroom light off, I walked through the dim hall to my bedroom.
Dan had spread out onto my side; I nudged him until he groaned and rolled over. Pulling the comforter aside, I climbed in and snuggled close to where Dan’s body had warmed the bed. I stayed curled up against him, shivering, until I was warm enough to unfold my legs into the cold space at the end of the bed. But soon I felt too warm. I turned and put one arm beneath the pillow, pulling the comforter away from my body. I lay listening to the ping of the baseboard heat and the steady hiss of the humidifier. Then I pushed myself up on one elbow and squinted to read the red numbers on the digital clock: 1:47. I got out of bed, picked up my sweat pants and pulled them on underneath my nightgown, then went downstairs.
I could smell Mitzi, our Doberman, curled on the kitchen floor. Mitzi’s old and gentle, but she appears fierce. I decided to take her with me.
Outside it was cold and still, with no wind. Closing the back-yard gate, I felt like a fugitive. Alert to the unfamiliar night smells, Mitzi danced expectantly alongside me.
The winter snows had melted, leaving only a few crusty piles on the north side of the houses. A cord of wood had been delivered to the Earlers; the large split logs lay spilled on their front walk. This was next winter’s wood, delivered now to be seasoned in their basement. Once Dan and I, caught up in other things, had our wood delivered so late in the fall that we’d had to dig it out from the first snowfall. I noticed the Poler’s Christmas wreath was still up — ours had been stolen months ago. I stopped to look across the wrought-iron fence into the Ritter’s mulched garden. Soon snowdrops would pop out of the ground under the bay window, and blue scilla would grow so profusely around the birches that the garden would come to resemble a small pool.
A car drove by, and I called Mitzi closer. Passing the Sullivan’s I noticed their kitchen light was on, and looking in, I saw Louise Sullivan standing by her kitchen table. She wore a pink robe and she was frosting a layer cake. Between the two layers some frosting was already in place. I stepped onto the grass for a better look: chocolate with white frosting. Louise held the knife suspended, a large lump on the tip, then bending forward, she spread it smoothly over the top and around the sides of the cake. Her faced seemed thinner than I’d remembered, the hollow below her cheekbone more pronounced.
I knew Louise only slightly. We’d met a few years ago at a neighborhood party shortly after the Sullivans had arrived from Texas. They had a little boy, Will, and a baby, Ann-Sophie. But Ann-Sophie had a heart problem, a leaking valve. She was tiny; I’d heard that the doctors had decided to wait a year before operating. Everyone knew about the seriousness of the operation, but no one had expected Ann-Sophie to die. Turning away from the window, I walked back toward our house. The moon, high in the cold starry sky, was almost full. I thought about Louise Sullivan. I’d heard she hadn’t blamed the doctors. She’d said they’d done all they could do.
Leaving Mitzi in the kitchen, I went up the backstairs to check on Florry. I listened for a minute to her unbroken breathing, then went to each of her three windows. Running my hands down the fabric of the curtains where they met, I pulled them tightly together so that they overlapped against the bright moonlight.
I settled in next to Dan and kissed his shoulder. In New Jersey, Kathryn would be asleep with Roger in their king-size water bed. Because she was a mother now, part of Kathryn would never sleep, but would always be listening for Thaddeus, his carrot-colored head pressed against the crib, his thumb in his mouth. Down in Durham, Matthew would be on the first floor of North Hall, asleep in the Zen room. It was spring there and his window would be open to the tree frogs and the smell of wisteria. James, however, would be piled over with blankets in Edinburgh. In the frigid basement room at the MacNeils’ his roommate, Mory, would be snoring, and James would have barricaded his head between two pillows.
I looked at Dan; his eyes were closed. How could he sleep so soundly? I wondered. My nightgown had bunched up under my back; I pulled it out and felt myself drifting. As if from a great distance, I heard Dan say, “Shall I go in and see how things are?”
My tongue was thick and I had trouble forming the words. “If you want to,” I replied, “but they’re all asleep.”